MY FAVOURITE SHORT STORIES Part 29
A Lazy Mumbai Story
I spent six of the best years of my life in Mumbai.
I was very lucky - I lived in a beautiful heritage building called Empress Court opposite the Oval. Every morning I woke up sharp at six to the chimes of the majestic clock on the University of Mumbai Rajabai Tower and I would be off to Marine Drive for my brisk morning jog cum walk from Churchgate to Chowpatty and back right upto land's end at Nariman Point. This was for physical exercise.
Every evening I would head for Marine Drive again.
This time it was to "DO NOTHING" - a leisurely walk to relax the mind, not exercise the body. Just a unhurried stroll, admire the sunset as the sea swallowed up the orange sun, watch pretty young things (and the even prettier not-so-young things) head home from work, have a bite, peanuts, bhel, pani puri at the famous B-Road stall, sweet curds at Rustom near Churchgate or maybe even a green chilly ice cream at Bachellor's opposite the chowpatty. It was during these glorious DOING NOTHING
“What do you do...?” she asks.
“Nothing...!” I say.
“What do you mean ‘NOTHING’...?" she asks, “You must be doing something...!”
“I do nothing...!” I say emphatically.
“Come on Vinay, stop kidding. I know you work somewhere.”
“Work...? You asked me what I do, not where I work...! I work at the Bureau of Statistics.”
“Bureau of Statistics...? What statistics...?”
“Vital Statistics...?” she asks with her eyebrows arched in curious surprise.
“No, No. It’s not what you’re thinking. I meant statistics that are vital,” I say, trying to correct the faux pas. "We compile, collate, consolidate, analyze and disseminate various vital statistics.”
“Wow...! How interesting...! Tell me more.”
“You can say that I am an obsolescent man dealing with obsolete things.”
“Obsolescent man...? Obsolete things...? I don’t understand. Where exactly do you work...?”
“I’m in the smallpox section.”
“Yes. Smallpox. I maintain statistics pertaining to smallpox.”
“That’s funny...! I thought smallpox was eradicated long back.”
“Smallpox may have been eradicated, but my office is still going strong,” I say proudly. It is true – sometimes the ends vanish, but the means proliferate and flourish till eternity.
“I can’t believe it...! If there’s no smallpox around, why maintain statistics...?”
“If you don’t maintain statistics how will the world come to know that something has vanished, disappeared or become obsolete...?”
“Oh, so you work on vital statistics for things that are obsolete...?”
“Yes. Obsolete...! Earlier I worked in the typewriters statistics section and it was we who discovered that typewriters had become obsolete the moment we had nothing to do...!”
“But what do you do whole day...?”
“Nothing...!” I answer emphatically. “I told you I do nothing, didn’t I...?”
“Don’t you feel bored, restless, doing nothing whole day...? Soon you’ll go crazy...!”
“Bored, restless, crazy...? Not at all. Thanks to my work, I have developed the ability to savor long hours of leisure – a gift most of you so-called ‘busy’ people have lost, or probably never acquired.”
Yes indeed, my dear Reader... I do nothing. That’s what I love to do the most, that’s what I do best, and that’s what I do almost all the time –‘Nothing’...!
Well, actually, I love doing nothing because for most of the time I have nothing to do.
I have plenty of leisure, plenty of time to do nothing, which is rare in a place like Mumbai, and I am always busy doing nothing... my life’s leitmotif being that famous epigram of Chang Cha’ao :
Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely.
I told you I have the ability to enjoy and savor long hours of leisure – a talent which is quite rare in today’s hectic world where everyone is busy running their own rat-race.
I am lucky to enjoy so much leisure, for I am not running in any rat-race.
I may not be a rat, but I am a man of no importance, neither handsome, nor wealthy, nor successful, nor powerful, nor famous, nor, indeed, particularly well endowed.
How can I describe myself...?
The most apt word may be ‘anonymous’....
Oh yes, I am an ordinary man who looks so undistinguished and commonplace that you won’t notice me in a crowd, or even if there is no crowd, for I just blend into the surroundings.
And in my anonymity lies my power, my freedom, to do nothing.
You may call me an idler, a loafer, a loser, a failure – but I just don’t care, as long as I can pleasurably wallow, revel and rejoice in my anonymity, doing nothing.
Indeed, anonymity is a sine qua non for my ‘doing nothing’ philosophy of life.
Hey, we’ve digressed...!
Enough of pontification.
Let’s return to the conversation I’m having with the beautiful lady and let me tell you how it all started.
One evening I leave my office, after a busy day of doing nothing, cross through the Horniman Circle garden, walk down Vir Nariman Road, past Flora Fountain, cross MG road at Hutatma Chowk, pick up a vada pav at Ashok Satam’s stall next to the CTO, stroll leisurely towards Churchgate while the sea of humanity rushes by like a deluge, fortify myself with a refreshing cup of Irani tea at Stadium restaurant and sit on the parapet on Marine Drive staring vacantly at the tranquil sea doing what I do best – Nothing...!
“Hi...!” says a melodious feminine voice shaking me out of my reverie. I turn around. It’s Roopa, my classmate from college. She’s quite a looker and I feast my eyes on her in a yearning sort of way which is worth a hundred compliments.
She blushes at the genuine admiration in my eyes and says, “It’s so nice to see you, Vinay. After so many years. And here of all the places...!”
“I like this place. It’s one of my favorites. I come here most evenings,” I say.
“And what were you doing sitting and staring blankly at the sea like a lost case...?”
“Nothing...? You spend every evening here doing nothing...?”
“Yes,” I say. “Of course, once in a while I go to the Gateway, or land’s end at Nariman Point, or the Chowpatty side, or even Hanging Gardens. But this is my favorite place for hanging out and doing nothing and most evenings I’m here.”
“What do you do...?” she asks.
“Nothing...!” I say.
(And then we have the conversation about my work that I have described earlier in the beginning, at the start of my story...)
“Aren’t you happy to see me...?” she asks.
“Of course I am happy to see you,” I say looking directly into her large brown eyes.
“You’ve told me everything about yourself, but you haven’t asked me anything about me,” she says.
“I’m no nosy parker. I don’t like to be too inquisitive,” I say.
“Inquisitive...? But you can be a bit curious, can’t you...? Don’t you want to know about me...? What all I’ve achieved since college, what I’m doing, my work – aren’t you interested in me...?” she asks.
“I was always interested in you. Don’t you remember...? It was you who never gave me any bhav. You used me as a messenger to carry love letters to your boy friends, that’s all,” I say.
“Please don’t say that. You know you were so sweet, that you were the only boy we all girls could confide in, talk to freely, knowing you would keep our secrets safe,” she says.
“Okay Roopa, confide in me. Tell me, what are doing here...?”
“I’ve come for my visa. They said it’d take an hour. So I just came here to kill time.”
“Visa...? Here in Churchgate...? I thought the visa office was in Breach Candy or somewhere there...!”
“That’s the US Consulate. I’ve already got that. The UK visa office is here. In the Brabourne Stadium building, near Rustom Ice Cream.”
“Ah...! Rustoms...! Come on Roopa, let’s have some ice cream. Or sweet curds. Or whatever you like.”
“Let’s eat something first. That place looks good,” she says pointing to the Pizzeria, opposite the Marine Drive, where Talk of the Town was once there. “We’ll sit there and talk. And have some pizza.”
I order a huge special pizza, she orders a small one, and she begins talking about herself.
I am easy to talk to, for I listen well. You'll understand what I mean once you talk to me. I know when to egg you on... by a subtle gesture, an encouraging look, or an appreciative word of genuine interest. It's all about building rapport...sensory acuity...matching and mirroring...if you've done NLP you know what I mean. Believe me... I have the knack... and when you talk to me your words will just come tumbling out.
Roopa tells me everything, about her Masters in Computers after we graduated in Maths, her natural talent in Software, her meteoric success, her globetrotting projects, her career rise from job to job, from Mumbai, Bangalore, Gurgaon, to her present job in a top IT company in Pune. And also about her recent marriage to Deepak, another hotshot IT professional working in the same company as hers. She shows me Deepak's photo - yes he does look an IT Nerd, no doubt about it...
“You know Vinay,” she says excitedly, “I am on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling. This project, the next one year, is crucial, it’s a do or die situation for me. If I succeed, my life is made forever. It will be a career breakthrough for me and there will be no looking back. I’ll be able to set up my own company. Maybe move to the States, Seattle.”
I nod and focus on my pizza.
“It’s going to be very hectic. US, UK, Europe, Far East, Middle East, everywhere – I’ll be globetrotting all over, living out of a suitcase.”
“Great,” I say. “When do you take off...? Tonight...?”
“I wish I could, but there’s a small hitch.”
“Fantastic...!” I say... but from the expression on her face I instantly realize that I have said the wrong thing, so I look down into my pizza and pretend to dig deep.
“It’s all wrong. The timing, I mean,” she says. “I’m so meticulous at work... I just don’t know how I could be so careless in my personal life and mess up everything.”
I say nothing.
She wants to hear silence, silent approbation, and that is what she will hear.
That’s the trick... always say something that the person you are talking to wants to hear... otherwise just keep quiet.
“I have to do something fast...!”
“You asked your husband...?”
“Are you mad...? The moment Deepak comes to know, he’ll start jumping with joy for having proven his virility. Everyone will come to know. And it will be curtains for me as far as this project is concerned.”
“You can still go, can’t you...?”
“It’s a one year project. The moment my MCP bosses hear I’m pregnant, they will have me out of the project straightaway. And my husband – he’ll be the happiest. As it is he is inwardly jealous that I’ve got this project... that I’ll succeed and leave him behind. I must do something fast, isn’t it...?”
My mouth full of pizza, I nod my head.
“Vinay, please tell me,” she says getting emotional, “my priorities are right, aren’t they...?”
“Yes, of course, your priorities are right,” I say emphatically.
“What do you say? Now, at this crucial juncture, I should focus on my career, don’t you think? I can always have all the children I want later... isn’t it?”
“Very right. Very right...!” I say. “Roopa, you’re absolutely right...!”
“Thanks, Vinay. I’m so lucky I met you. You are the only one I’ve told all this. Thanks for talking to me. You’ve helped me make my decision,” she says extending her hand on the table.
I place my hand on hers, press gently and look into her brown eyes.
“You’re such a darling, Vinay,” she says, “it’s so comforting to talk to you.”
And then tears well up in her eyes and suddenly she breaks down, oblivious of the surroundings. I move across, caress her head and gently soothe her.
We talk a bit, and I walk her down to Rustom for a ‘Sandwich Ice Cream’, then she collects her visa, and I bid good bye to a reassured, composed and determined Roopa as she gets into a taxi on her way to catch a Volvo Bus to Pune.
And then I leisurely stroll towards my favorite place on Marine Drive to continue 'doing nothing'.
I rinse my lungs with the refreshing sea breeze, and suddenly smell a strong whiff of perfume, or maybe it’s one of those overpowering deos!
I turn around.
It is the ravishing Nina, another of my ‘achiever’ go-getter classmates who after her MBA is now a hotshot in a top MNC.
I’ve seen her sometimes on Marine Drive, in her chauffer driven car, driving home late evening from her office in Nariman Point to her home on Malabar Hill.
Once she even stopped and asked me if I wanted a lift, an offer I politely declined, and then she asked me what I was doing, and when I told her I was doing nothing, she gave me an uncanny smile, and I notice that every time she sees me ‘doing nothing’ at my favorite spot on Marine Drive from her car, she looks at me in a curious sort of way.
“Doing Nothing...?” Nina asks naughtily, her eyes dancing.
“Yes. How did you know...?”
“Come on, Vinay...! You told me once, remember...? I see you here almost every evening while driving home.”
“And you never stop to say hello...?”
“I don’t want to disturb your penance.”
“Penance...? That’s malapropism...!”
“Sorry. I mean your ‘doing nothing’ meditation.”
“That’s better...! And what makes you disturb my meditation now...?”
“I want to talk to you.”
“Not here. Too many people here. Let’s go to some quiet place where we can be alone.”
“Hanging Gardens...? Remember our favorite bench in the secluded corner?”
“Okay. But don’t do anything naughty...!”
“Let’s go. Where is your car...?”
“I let it go and I walked down from my office. Didn’t want the driver getting too curious.”
“Okay, I’ll get a cab. Hey, why not just walk down Marine Drive...? Walking and talking – it wouldn’t look suspicious.”
“Okay,” she says, "let's walk and talk."
And we walk and we talk.
Being a ‘facts and figures’ finance person she doesn’t beat about the bush and comes straight to the point.
“I’m pregnant...” she announces.
I suppress my emotion. This is too much for one evening.
First Roopa, and now Nina.
Coincidence, serendipity, I don’t know what...or maybe it's pregnancy season.
This time I’m careful not to say anything.
“Aren’t you going to congratulate me?” she asks.
“Of course. Congratulations!” I say.
“You’re the first one I’ve told. I just got the report this evening.”
“Your husband...? You didn't tell your husband...?”
“Oh my God...! Is the father of your baby someone else...?”
“I’m sorry. But you must tell your husband immediately.”
“And he will immediately rush me to the nearest abortionist...!”
“We took all the precautions, but it’s happened. I want the baby.”
“Of course you must have the baby,” I say.
“I must. Isn’t it...? What do you feel...I must have the baby...isn't it...?”
“Of course you must have the baby. But why doesn’t your husband want it...?”
“I told him that when I have a baby I’m going to quit my job... at least take a long break to bring up my child. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it...?”
“Oh yes, of course that’s the right thing to do.”
“I feel being a full time mother is more important. At least when the baby is small, isn’t it...?”
“Of course being a full time mother is most important...especially when the baby is small. You must take care of yourself from right now. Come on I’ll call a taxi. You shouldn’t strain yourself so much.”
“How sweet of you...! But just let’s sit there by the sea for some time...”
“Tell me, why doesn’t your husband want you to have a baby now...?”
“Because he knows I’ll quit my job.”
“Who is going to pay the EMI for the luxurious penthouse apartment he wants to book...?”
“Penthouse Apartment...? It can wait. The baby is more important.”
“That’s just what I’ve been saying since we got married.”
“He feels we should first have all the material things, all the comforts, before we have a baby.”
“He’s got his priorities wrong.”
“He’s wrong, isn’t it...?”
“Yes, he’s wrong. And you’re right...”
“So I should go ahead with the baby, isn’t it...?”
“And quit my job.”
“Of course you should,” I say, “and you go and tell your husband right away and put your foot down. Tell him: ‘The baby takes priority, the penthouse apartment can come later’.”
“I will, I will,” she says looking happy and emboldened.
“You must do what your conscience tells you. Listen to your inner voice. Be the strong girl like you were in college,” I say.
Nina gives me a genuine smile of affection and says, “I’m so glad I talked to you, Vinay. Thanks for helping me make my decision.”
We sit for some time by the sea at Chowpatty at the end of Marine Drive and marvel at the spectacle of the sun being swallowed by the sea.
Then I walk Nina to a taxi and she leaves after giving me a warm hug.
I walk down Marine Drive in the twilight and reflect.
Roopa and Nina.
Roopa and Nina.
I loved talking to them.
I love to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me.
Talking to someone who needs comforting seems to make my own troubles go away ...